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June 19 2012

Picasso painting vandalised in Houston – video

A patron at Houston's Menil Collection captures mobile phone footage of a man vandalising Picasso's Woman in a Red Armchair



February 10 2012

Developer Week in Review: A pause to consider patents

This week, as I do occasionally, I want to focus in on one specific topic.

For regular readers, the topic of technology innovation and patents is nothing new; it's a problem that is frequently covered in this space. But this week, there were two important occurrences in the world of intellectual property that highlight just what a mess we've gotten ourselves into.

The first is an unexpected turn of events down in scenic Tyler, Texas, home of the world's most litigant-friendly patent infringement juries. How friendly? Well, biased enough that Eolas relocated its corporate HQ to Tyler just to be close to the courts. Eolas, as you may recall, is the pesky gadfly that's been buzzing around giants such as Microsoft for years, claiming broad patents over, well, the entire Internet. Rather than continuing a costly court battle it might lose in the end, the House of Redmond settled, and a host of other high-tech cash-cows followed suit.

US Patent 5,838,906As Eolas continued to threaten to sue the pants off everyone, a ragtag group of plucky companies like Adobe Systems, Google, Yahoo, Apple, eBay and Amazon.com said enough is enough. And this week in Tyler, following testimony by luminaries such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a jury agreed, invalidating the infamous '906 patent.

You'd think that this would make Google, one of the main defendants, a big hero and confirm its status as Not Evil. But in the very same week, Google refused to budge on its licensing requirements for patents it acquired from Motorola, patents that are required for any company that wants to play in the 3G cell phone space.

When a standard is adopted by governmental bodies (such as the FCC) or standards-setting bodies like IEEE, it should ideally be free of any intellectual property restraints. After all, that's the purpose of a standard: to provide a common framework that competing companies can use to produce interoperable products. Standards such as GSM and CDMA are why you can use your iPhone in Europe (if you're rich).

The problem is, most modern standards come with a bundle of patents attached to them. In the 3G space, Google (through the Motorola acquisition) and Samsung own a lot of them. As part of the standard-making process, these companies are supposed to agree to offer use of the patents under Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) license terms. The idea is that all companies using the standard pay the same license fees to the patent holders, so no one gets an advantage. The problem is, who decides what is Fair and Reasonable?

This is especially pernicious when the company licensing the patent is also a competitor in the space. Obviously, Samsung doesn't pay itself a license fee to use its patent, so it doesn't matter how expensive it makes the fee, as long as Samsung doesn't incur the wrath of the standard-setting body. In the case of Motorola/Google, the license fee is set at 2.25% of the total selling price of the phone (which would come to around $13.50 on a $600 iPhone). Apple, et al., are screaming to the moon that that kind of licensing is not in the spirit of FRAND, but it's up to groups such as the European standards body, ETSI, to determine if the patent holders are really playing fair.

Of course, Google has fallen victim to the same issues. Although it doesn't pay the piper directly, phone manufacturers using Android end up reportedly paying $5 per phone to Microsoft to avoid patent issues. It's worth noting, however, that at least Microsoft is using software-related patents that it claims Android infringes, not patents directly related to the underlying standards used by the phone.

There's a simple solution to this problem, of course, which is not to allow patent-encumbered technologies to become standards. The software world has (mostly) been free of this kind of nonsense, and it's a good thing. Can you imagine having to pay a license fee to use SOAP, or AJAX? The worrisome thing is that this could become the model used for software patents, and it would basically kill smaller companies trying to be innovative.

Oh, and before you count Eolas out of the game, remember that this is just a single trial it lost. It can try again with another jury and another set of companies. Unless the USPTO invalidates the underlying patent, Eolas is still out there, waiting to strike.

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January 11 2011

Caught on camera

As much investigative reportage as photography book, Like a Thief's Dream pieces together a real murder case through images of a killer the author met in a prison in Texas – and uncovered a probable miscarriage of justice

A friend gave me a copy of Like a Thief's Dream by Danny Lyon as a Christmas present. "It's not really a photography book," he said, "more a piece of investigative journalism with a few photographs." This is indeed the case, but it is also more than that. Published in 2007, the book went under my radar back then, but it is a fascinating read, one that speaks volumes about Lyon's approach, which has always been journalistic, and often campaigning.

The first thing that strikes you about Like a Thief's Dream is that there are, indeed, not that many photographs in it – just 24 in all. More surprising still, many of them are not by Danny Lyon, but are "found": mug shots, pictures from scrapbooks and personal journalism, and snapshots from family photo albums and an FBI wanted poster. Oddly, for a book by a photographer, the images are very definitely an accompaniment to the text rather than the other way around. In this instance, the text is an extended piece of what used to be called New Journalism, a form in which the writer often placed himself at the centre of the story. Both Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song sprang to mind as I read Lyon's account of a true crime – the murder of a young police officer in Arkansas in 1975 – and his evolving relationship with one of the convicted murderers, James Ray Renton.

"This is the story of a journalist and a thief," the narrative begins, "I am the journalist and Jimmy Renton, a man I met in a Texan prison, is the thief." Lyon, like many great photographers, is a fine writer. He is also a great investigative reporter, painstakingly piecing together a credible account of what happened on the December night in 1975 when officer John Hussey was murdered. Lyon puts Renton at the scene of the crime, though he never confronts him about what exactly happened of the killing, and his failure to do so becomes one of the many fractured, nagging narratives that contribute impressionistically to the bigger one.

Likewise the probable miscarriage of justice that Lyon uncovers: the wrongful arrest and imprisonment of Harold "Dinker" Cassell, who, at the time of the book's publication, had served 27 years in prison for a crime Lyon firmly believes he did not commit. Lyon uses both Cassell and Renton's letters and interviews in his telling of this strange tale, as well as the words of corroborating witnesses – some of whom did not come forward to testify at the time, so scared were they of Renton's possible retribution.

The bigger narrative of Like a Thief's Dream, though, is one that has exercised Lyon throughout his life as a photographer: the inhumanity of the American prison system. Like a Thief's Dream is a book that grew out of Lyon's earlier, more epic work, Conversations With the Dead, published in 1971. For that book, Lyon photographed conditions inside six Texan prisons with the full co-operation of the Texas Department of Corrections, which considered its system of punishment more humane than others in the US. "I tried with whatever power I had," he wrote at the time, "to make a picture of imprisonment as distressing as I knew it to be in reality."

It was during the making of that work that Lyon first met Renton, then halfway through an 11-year sentence for burglary. In Like a Thief's Journal, he describes him thus: "He was 28 years old, about three years older then I. He spoke with a dripping East Texas drawl that he had picked up in Port Arthur, the same town Janice Joplin, then at the height of her career, was from. He spoke to me with an almost gentlemanly charm … that made him immediately stand out from all the other men I had met."

Unlike the other men he had met – and photographed – in Texan prisons, however, Renton asked Lyon if he could also take a picture of him. He was, as it turned out, interested in photography – and fishing, and marijuana, both of which Lyon loved, too. "Jimmy was a thief who stood out among a population of thieves,", Lyon writes in Like a Thief's Dream, clearly cherishing the moment of identification. "Although he was one of my subjects, he was also, in a way, my equal. Someone who demanded to be taken seriously."

Ironically enough, none of Lyon's photographs of Renton made it into the final edit of Conversations With the Dead, but, alongside a handful of other inmates of Huntsville Prison, he did help the photographer create a small, portfolio edition of the book, which was made on the prison's printing press. He is credited on the front cover underneath Lyon's name: "Smiley Renton, *189994, Lithography".

It was shortly after being freed from Huntsville in the early 1970s that Renton was involved in the murder of police officer Hussey. The book traces his capture, conviction and his subsequent escape from prison – Renton was briefly on the FBI's most wanted list until his recapture. In one way, the book is a record of Lyon's deepening friendship with Renton, which lasted from that first fateful meeting until Renton died in prison – of natural causes – some 30 years later. Throughout, you sense Lyon's growing intimacy with a man who was both a charming confidante and a cold-blooded killer, and it is this identification with the outsider, a recurrent trope in Lyon's work, that has proven problematic to some of his critics.

"To some, he's idealising people who really are not good people at all, they're just criminals," his friend, the writer, Larry McMurtry, told the New York Times recently, "but, to Danny, they're just good people who never had a chance … he's an idealist, to a large extent."

Lyon, for his part, sees nothing wrong with that: "You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to people. Not just physically close, emotionally close, all of it. It's part of the process."

Interestingly, early in his career, Lyon assisted Robert Frank, whom he greatly admired, but, unlike Frank – a European self-exiled in America – his eye is never that of an outsider. To this end, he ran with the Outlaws' motorcycle gang for two years while photographing them for The Bikeriders, published in 1967. Once, while chronicling the civil rights struggle in the American south as a raw, self-taught 20-year-old, he ended up in a prison cell next to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

It is quite a leap, though, from that prison cell to the one in which he first met James Renton; and one of the strongest undercurrents in Like a Thief's Dream is Lyon's self-questioning voice, the one that seemingly nags at him more when he is writing than photographing; the one that asks him persistently why he is doing what he is doing. To this end, the book's epigraph is illuminating. It comes from Browning: "Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things," it reads. "The honest thief. The tender murderer."

Those few lines cast some light on the dark motivations that underlie Danny Lyon's ongoing body of brilliantly challenging – and unapologetically problematic – work, and on our continuing fascination with it.

Now see this

The Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff continues to show strong work from established and upcoming photographers. It starts 2011 with a retrospective of Laura Pannack's work, opening on 15 January. It includes the series, Glass, in which she photographs people behind a piece of glass. Pannack won the 2010 World Press Photo Award in the single portrait category, and her intimate and self-assured approach to portraiture continues to intrigue.


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April 27 2009

Play fullscreen
LBJ Page Turners Series: Nadine Eckhardt

February 28 2008

TERRA 417: Army Naturalist PREVIEW

When you think of military bases, the tanks, artillery, and explosions probably don't seem very conducive to wildlife. The fact of the matter is that these installations harbor an diverse array of wildlife that finds protective niches in these sometimes violent ecosystems. Join Jen Brown as she takes us to boot camp with an "Army Naturalist"!
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